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Pope Francis Takes the Gay Gloves Off – Can we drop the Both Sides journalism façade?

It’s time for journalists to report on Francis as accurately — and as harshly — as they report on Evangelical leaders with beliefs almost identical to his.

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Illustration by Max Huskins

False balance, also bothsidesism: A media bias in which journalists present an issue as being more balanced between opposing viewpoints than the evidence supports.

I woke up Monday morning to harsh, depressing news

In a story from Axios, I learned Pope Francis and the Catholic Church have once again morally condemned me and most of the people I love, instructing priests to stop (or not to start) blessing same-sex unions — a practice that until yesterday was finding currency in more liberal Catholic quarters.

The story gets worse from there.

The details of the pronouncement are bad enough, but the bigger story is the journalistic environment in which they’re being reported. From the beginning of Francis’s papacy, major media have bent over backwards to find reasons to paint him as progressive on LGBTQ matters when regressive is a more fair description of his LGBTQ teachings and practices.

Journalists even in the most left-leaning publications often practice classic bothsidesism that paints a distorted picture of how Francis’s Church actually treats LGBTQ people, who mostly experience the Roman Catholic Church as an agent of oppression and stigmatization.

I belong to a large Irish-American Catholic clan, and I’ve heard my own progressive-ish nieces and nephews latch on to inaccurate news reporting that allows them to feel better about the Church they support and — this is critical — lulls them into a complacency that almost guarantees they will not pressure the Church to reform itself.

Here’s what the Vatican did on Monday

That Axios headline was clear and accurate: “Priests can’t bless gay unions because God “cannot bless sin.” Ireland’s RTE, a national public news service, broke the story down in more depth. Besides nixing blessings for gay couples, The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has ruled that priests must restrict individual blessings to “persons with homosexual inclinations who manifest the will to live in fidelity to the revealed plans of God as proposed by Church teaching.”

In other words, the Church demands celibacy in exchange for inclusion.

The ruling explicitly calls gay people disordered and sinful, spelling out that gay people are fine with the Church only so long as we never form intimate sexual relationships, a basic human need. With this document, the Church continues a tradition of religiously bullying members of gender and sexual minorities by inaccurately reducing our identities and innate biology to pathology.

Despite that, the CDF authors maintain their position constitutes the “respect and sensitivity” the Catechism requires. In Orwellian doublespeak typical of Francis, they claim their ruling is not a form of the “unjust discrimination” the Catechism forbids.

In fact, with Francis’s explicit authorization, this ruling affirms all the Church’s traditions that stigmatize and morally condemn LGBTQ people. For Catholic progressives hoping for the reform of Church teachings, Monday’s ruling dashes hopes.

Does Francis intend to reform the Church?

The document he just approved demonstrates his implacable opposition to reform. It’s harsh, authoritarian, dehumanizing, and damaging to real human beings all over the world. It gives Catholic clergy and lay leaders all the tools they need to continue condemning and pathologizing LGBTQ people.

That’s the real story here, and almost nobody is reporting it like that

Check out this New York Times sub-header: “In a ruling made public on Monday, the Vatican said the Roman Catholic Church should be welcoming toward gay people, but not their unions.”

That sentence is fundamentally inaccurate, even outright misleading.

It’s a perfect example of looking for two sides to a story even when one of those sides is barely true. Sure the CDF document calls for “welcoming,” but it explicitly instructs priests not to be welcoming — to withhold ordinary blessings from gay people in partnerships, to teach those gay people that they are living “in sin.”

You can dig into that Times article and get some good information, though you’d have to dig hard, and you would not find the critical piece about banning individual blessings. The Times chose not to report that, even though it’s perhaps the most important part of the story.

The Washington Post did a slightly better job, but their lede is as inaccurate and misleading as the Times’ sub-header: “Pope Francis has invited LGBT advocates to the Vatican. He has spoken warmly about the place of gay people in the church. He has called for national laws for same-sex civil unions.”

Seriously? That’s the lede? That’s neutral journalism?

It gets worse. Look how they report on individual blessings: “The decree said individual gay people could continue to be blessed by the church, provided they show ‘the will to live in fidelity to the revealed plans of God as proposed by Church teaching.’”

If the reader blinked, they missed that the Church just ordered priests to stop blessing individual gay people who aren’t celibate. This story is much more detailed than the one in the Times; it contains some accurate information. It frankly confronts the issue of gay Catholics feeling betrayed. But it uses classic bothsidesism to paint a more positive picture than exists on the ground. Nobody reading the story would conclude that the Church under Francis has regressed on LGBTQ inclusion, even though it has regressed substantially.

Reading the Times, the Post, or most mainstream newspapers, the reader would have missed something profoundly important: Francis often makes kind-sounding personal observations about LGBTQ people but has done nothing to translate those observations into policy. His specific actions have more often been regressive, and his statements have often been misleading.

  • Regressive: In 2016, Francis hardened the 2005 ban on gay men training for the priesthood that his predecessor Pope Benedict had put in place. Two years later, Francis implied that the ban is based in part on his personal belief that gay men are likely to be neurotic.
  • Regressive: In 2018, Francis instructed Catholic parents to send gay children to therapy, implying that before the age of 20, conversion therapy might be effective. Prior to that pronouncement, the Church had a reputation for opposing conversion therapy, known to be ineffective and dangerous. Since then, Catholic dioceses all over the U.S. have partnered with conversion therapy providers, and the practice is increasing.
  • Regressive: In 2018, Francis indicated in unscripted remarks at the Vatican that families headed by LGBTQ parents are not “real families.” Subsequently, he refused to meet with with a delegation of Catholic families headed by gay parents. He demonstrated unwelcoming behavior.
  • Misleading: Last September, Francis was widely quoted as telling a group of Italian parents of LGBTQ children that “The church does not exclude them because she loves them deeply.” He did not address their petition to him, which was for the Church to stop excluding their children. His kind words were widely reported, but almost no press source reported that his words were so misleading they were, practically speaking, a lie.
  • Misleading: Last October, following the release of a documentary, press reported that Francis supports civil unions for gay couples, quoting him saying gay people deserve families. Nobody reported that he opposes gay couples raising children together. The Vatican later clarified that by “deserving families,” Francis meant that straight parents should not kick gay children out of their homes. He did not mean that gay couples ought to form families. Almost no one noticed the correction.

Mainstream press perspective on Francis is itself misleading

The Catholic Church is in crisis, shrinking in the western world so fast some analysts call the trend an implosion. In former monolithic Catholic strongholds like Ireland and Quebec, the Church no longer plays any significant cultural role. Around the world, from the United States, to Argentina and even Italy, Church attendance is falling fast, precipitously fast among young people.

Most of those young people cite harsh teachings and practices about LGBTQ people as one reason for seeking spiritual succor outside the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Francis and the Vatican have powerful motives to mislead about their deeply unpopular values. That’s understandable, but the Press ought to hold them to account.

It’s funny how mainstream news sources hold Evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson up to barely concealed scorn, usually reporting their anti-LGBTQ practices and teachings accurately. It’s funny, because Pope Francis’s theology is every bit as harsh, yet the Press is consistently kind to him, seeming visibly to cooperate to make his harsh, stigmatizing theology appear “kindler and gentler.”

Granted, they’re following his lead, but that doesn’t justify bad reporting.

Francis’s Church causes enormous pain and suffering

In the United States alone, where bishops are very conservative, LGBTQ people trying to be included in Catholic spiritual communities are regularly shamed and shunned.

The details include teenagers bullied at school by administrators, blackmailed into unwanted counseling, and forced into conversion therapy. LGBTQ and allied teachers and administrators are fired in witch hunts. Music leaders lose their jobs after decades of faithful service. LGBTQ support groups are forced out of Church-owned buildings. Every day, Catholic leaders teach and show people that queer folks are second class and deserving of punishment.

Around the world, the situation is even worse. Catholic bishops have incited anti-LGBTQ violence in places like Poland and Ghana. The Church is inarguably perpetuating and strengthening anti-LGBTQ sentiment. But the Press reported none of that yesterday.

It’s time for the Press paradigm to change

That story about gay civil unions is a story of oppression. It’s a story about a religious institution working to deny real civil marriage to same-sex couples, about an institution working to stop same-sex couples from raising children together.

You’d never know that browsing the Times or the Post — or almost any other major newspaper — because just like yesterday, the Press framed “both sides” of an issue that is deeply and factually one-sided. That paradigm has to change. It’s not the Press’s job to make excuses for a deeply toxic, unapologetically homophobic institution.

When the Press does that, they strengthen homophobia by normalizing it.

Mainstream press should be as hard-hitting as the LGBTQ press

The only hard-hitting press coverage I’ve seen of yesterday’s story about gay people being sinful comes from the Washington Blade, a newspaper that focuses on LGBTQ issues.

The Blade reached out to Juan Carlos Cruz, a gay Chilean man and a survivor of clergy sex abuse who met with Francis at the Vatican in 2018. Cruz had harsh words of truth for the Pope and the rest of the Vatican hierarchy. He compared the CDF to Tomás de Torquemada, who spearheaded the Spanish Inquisition from which the CDF is descended. Cruz called for immediate change in Vatican leadership:

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and especially its prefects are completely in a world of their own, away from people and trying to defend the indefensible. We see it in this quest to annihilate LGBT people, in the slowness with which the crimes of abuse are dealt with, their inhumanity in their awareness of people’s suffering so contrary to Pope Francis who I don’t know why he allows such inhumane and self-interested people in charge.

Bothsidesism is suppressing accurate news coverage

Francis will likely never hear Cruz’s angry, anguished words. He’ll likely never hear a chorus of outraged, anguished LGBTQ voices condemning him for his toxic, inhumane teachings and practices.

Most people will never hear those voices, because mainstream press won’t amplify them.

Laila Lalami observed in The Nation a couple years ago that bothsidesism “poisons America” by giving people too busy to thoroughly read news coverage a false impression of current events. When journalists bend over backwards to create balance where little exists, they do great harm.

That’s happening right now with Pope Francis, and it’s time for it to stop. It’s time for my nieces and nephews to stop finding excuses for the inexcusable dished up on silver platters. It’s time for them to feel deeply uncomfortable about the Church they support — so they can help reform it.

Knowledge is power.

It’s time for journalists to report on Francis as accurately — and as harshly — as they report on Evangelical leaders with beliefs almost identical to his.

James Finn is a former Air Force intelligence analyst, long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to [email protected]

This post was previously published at James Finn – The Blog and republished here by permission.

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Mar-A-Lago is Stonewall? Gay Republicans grovel for Trump

Trump today supports the most right-wing, anti-trans, anti-gay candidates for state office the nation has ever seen

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Donald Trump takes a wrecking ball to democracy. Photo by DonkeyHotey. (CC BY-SA 2.0) Log Cabin Republicans logo superimposed by author.

By James Finn | DETROIT – If you can’t guess from my headline, I don’t much care for the Log Cabin Republicans. They’re an advocacy group of gay men and a smattering of lesbians who support Republican politics and say they deserve a place at the GOP table.

I don’t dislike the Log Cabin crowd because I’m a Democrat, though. When they formed in 1977 to fight as GOP insiders against a California law banning gay teachers in public schools, they were doing vital equality work. When they they stood up for same-sex marriage nationally, they accepted a damaging political cost.

The Log Cabin Republicans of today, however, are nothing like who they used to be.

I don’t dislike them because they’re Republicans; I oppose their implacable opposition to genuine equality for LGBTQ Americans. I recoil at their recent, rapid (rabid?) embrace of anti-transgender rhetoric imported from the U.K.-based LGB Alliance, which calls supporting trans people “homophobia” and “conversion therapy.”

Mostly though, I’m shocked at Log Cabin’s unquestioning embrace of former President Donald Trump. They endorsed him for president in 2020, and they’ve made clear they’ll support him in 2024. They’re encouraging him to run again, claiming he’s a great friend to them and other LGB (but not T) people.

The truth is that Trump presided over a federal LGBTQ equality rollback that gave landlords the nod to evict gay and trans tenants, let employers freely discriminate, told business owners they could refuse to serve trans and gay customers, let medical professionals do the same, and encouraged religious people of all stripes to treat gay and trans people as second- or third-class Americans.

Trump today supports the most right-wing, anti-trans, anti-gay candidates for state office the nation has ever seen — or “like we’ve never seen” to mimic Trumpian rhetoric.

Yesterday, the Log Cabin Republicans sank to a new low, comparing Donald Trump’s Florida resort to the Stonewall Inn

The Log Cabin crowd joined a chorus of Republicans yesterday complaining about the FBI executing a search warrant on Trump’s Mar-A-Lago golf resort, where he lives during the winter. Details are available in this news story from the Los Angeles Blade.

For background, the National Archives have been negotiating with Trump for months, asking him to comply with federal law (enacted in response to the corrupt Nixon administration) that makes all presidential communication property of the federal government. They say Trump and his aids illegally removed dozens of boxes of official documents from the White House, and they want them back.

However, sources inside the Department of Justice, speaking to reporters on background, say the federal warrant is NOT about routine documents.

They say the FBI is seeking top secret, compartmentalized intelligence (SCI) products with the potential to severely damage national security by revealing our most closely held sources and methods. For perspective, when I worked in national security as an Air Force intelligence officer, I was often briefed in dire terms that removing SCI documents from approved storage facilities would (not could) result in a long prison sentence, even in the absence of ill intent.

What do the Log Cabin Republicans think about the FBI investigation? See for yourself in a message they tweeted a few hours after Trump denounced the investigation.

Can we talk about The Stonewall Inn?

New York City cops raided the gay bar in 1969 as part of a routine arrangement with its Mafia owners. Mob bosses owned almost all gathering places for queer people in NYC in those days. The mob paid a regular kickback to the corrupt NYPD. In exchange, they didn’t enforce laws that banned people from wearing clothes of the “opposite” sex and that banned same-sex couples from dancing together in places where alcohol was served.

Once in a while, the NYPD would stage a raid for show, to let the public think they were enforcing vice laws. Usually, they tipped the bar off in advance and staff would warn patrons to go elsewhere for the evening. Probably by mistake, that warning didn’t happen on June 28, 1969. The NYPD showed up with a paddy wagon to find lesbians, gay men and “street queens” packing Stonewall.

When the cops started arresting the queer people who used the bar as a safe haven, a riot started that consumed Greenwich Village for three days and nights. It wasn’t the first time relatively powerless queer people fought back and refused to go peacefully to jail, but the incident captured the national imagination and fueled a movement to fight for freedom and equality.

Stonewall stands for freedom for the powerless. The Mar-A-Lago warrant fights privilege for the powerful

Donald Trump is angry that a federal judge approved a warrant seeking evidence of a serious felony. His supporters are just as angry, some of them calling for violence, with the hashtag #lockandload trending on Twitter.

Clearly, Trump believes he’s so powerful that he’s above the law, and so do his supporters. They’re claiming Trump is being persecuted by political opponents, suggesting the FBI executed the warrant to plant evidence.

But that seems more than far fetched.

The Democratic Party has been funding primary candidates Trump supports, on the (some say dubious) theory that they will be easier to beat in November. The Democratic establishment WANTS Trump to run again in 2024, believing they’ll trounce him more soundly than in 2020.

The FBI investigation is apolitical, premised on the idea that no politician is so powerful that the law does not apply to them. It’s led by FBI Director Christopher Wray, a Trump appointee and Republican who is a member of the very conservative Federalist Society.

Trump has a long history of holding himself above the law, plus a history of releasing classified intelligence in the face of national security requests not to do so. Obviously, national security officials want to make sure he can’t harm U.S. interests. He arguably had that prerogative as president. He does not today as a private citizen.

Trump almost certainly violated national security laws

Legal experts told Business Insider on background that the FBI likely found “pulverizing” evidence when searching Trump’s Mar-A-Lago office. They wouldn’t have sought a warrant if they weren’t sure what they’d find.

As USA Today columnist and former federal prosecutor Michael J. Stern tweeted today, “I have written hundreds of search warrants. Lawyers and people whose homes are being searched are routinely not present during the search. That Trump is now talking about “planted” evidence means he knows there is something damning they found.”

The Log Cabin Republicans don’t care if Trump is guilty. They’ve joined the GOP cult of personality.

It’s bad enough that the Log Cabin crew have abandoned their own principles, or at least what used to be their principles. But what they’re doing today is worse. They’re endorsing the Trump personality cult, seeking personal power at his coattails rather than fighting for freedom and equality for LGBTQ people.

They join many other Republicans praising Trump no matter what he says or does. They join a loud GOP chorus singing the praises of a man who would be dictator, a man who told General John Kelly that he wished his other generals would be loyal to him like Nazi generals were loyal to Adolf Hitler.

Log Cabin joins a chorus of loyalists who cheered and whistled at last week’s CPAC convention in Texas as Trump spoke for two hours providing what Texas Monthly calls “A Violent Blueprint for Seizing Power,” including sweeping plans to replace civil servants with Trump loyalists.

At the same convention, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán earned whistles and cheers as loud as Trump’s, praising authoritarian nationalism antithetical to American democratic ideals. An eastern European despot shared a Texas stage with Trump, and Republicans cheered them both.

Perhaps Log Cabin Republicans should think a little harder about Texas, where they were recently barred from participating in the state Republican Convention, which produced a platform calling gay people “abnormal” and rejecting trans identities.

That’s the Republican Party Trump is empowering. Those are the candidates he’s endorsing. Orbán’s rabid anti-LGBTQ ideology is WHY he was at CPAC, why he was cheered so loudly.

So, what’s up, Log Cabin Republicans? What have you done with your principles and integrity? Why are you slavishly supporting a man turning the GOP into a howling pack of anti-gay, anti-trans wolves?

Ask yourselves that as you think about the raid on the Stonewall Inn, about how it was an attempt by the powerful to crush the freedom of the marginalized and the powerless.

Think about that as you consider how powerful Republicans today are rallying behind Trump to try to crush us again.

The rest of you? Please get out in November and vote Democrat like your lives depend on it. Because they just might.

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James Finn is a columnist for the LA Blade, a former Air Force intelligence analyst, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, and an “agented” but unpublished novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to [email protected]

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The preceding article was previously published by Prism & Pen– Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling and is republished by permission.

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Legislation may negatively impact LGBTQ+ kids already feeling isolated

Why our policymakers should think twice before passing legislation that may inhibit access for queer teens to social media

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Graphic courtesy of the Grant Halliburton Foundation

By Isaias Hernandez | LOS ANGELES – It seems difficult to comprehend that living in California in 2022, coming out as queer is still terrifying. With homophobic and transphobic legislation being introduced and passed in states across the country, including Florida’s law that allows parents to sue a school district if a teacher says the word “gay,” it is easy to assume that the state of California is far removed from that.

Unfortunately, laws like these in California are not an impossibility. Let’s not forget, it was just a short 14 years ago that Golden State voters chose to ban same-sex marriage by passing Proposition 8. It’s an unfortunate reality, but the decision to fully come out may never feel completely safe for many of us – which is why finding a community where we feel welcomed and accepted when we are young is so important, and why our policymakers should think twice before passing legislation that may inhibit access for queer teens to social media. 

Like many other queer teens who are also people of color, my high school years were hard. I did not feel safe being myself at home or at school, and on the precipice of adulthood, instead of finding my voice, I retreated and shrank myself to fit the role I thought I was expected to play. And then finally in 2019, I created a place where I could be my true self: a queer, brown, environmental justice fighter.  

When I created my Instagram account, @QueerBrownVegan, I was told that I shouldn’t talk about my queerness and that my environmental activism would be diminished by my queer identity. Knowing what I do about LGBTQI+ communities and the outsized impact the climate crisis and environmental injustices have on this vulnerable population, though, solidified my choice to keep my queerness front and center. 

I relied on the social connectedness of Instagram to create my online presence and to discover people who had similar interests as me. The photos, videos, and accounts I searched for would lead to recommendations of other like-minded people. It opened an entirely new world to me – and led to me feeling accepted and seen. This platform has also helped me to hold space for others, too. When young, queer environmentalists find my account, they too can feel like they’ve finally found a space of their own where they won’t feel judged or be bullied for being who they truly are. 

The community I have built on Instagram is one I wish I could have found when I was a teenager. This community has not only allowed me to be myself but also to forgive myself for the years I spent hating who I was. Social media gives teens from marginalized communities – brown, black, queer, disabled, fat, whatever and whoever they are – a place to find a community where they feel less alone and less marginalized. 

Recently, there has been a discussion in California’s Capitol about how to best keep teens safe on social media. To Sacramento, I say this: Queer teens are not safe when they are being ridiculed at school, they are not safe when their parents abuse them for a sexuality or gender they did not choose, and queer teens are not safe when they cannot be themselves. Social media is sometimes the safest space for queer teens who have nowhere else to be themselves. 

Bills like California Assembly Bill 2408 (AB 2408), that would impose strict standards on social media companies, could prevent young people from using social media at all, and that could have a dire impact on an already isolated young person who is looking for information or support from a community of people they otherwise may never find. With 45% of LGBTQ youth having seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, that is not a risk lawmakers should be willing to take.

I urge lawmakers to think about queer youth and youth from other marginalized communities – listen to their stories and understand the importance of being able to create a community where they can finally be themselves, unapologetically.

**********************

Courtesy of Isaias Hernandez

Isaias Hernandez is an environmental educator & founder of QueerBrownVegan.

Queer Brown Vegan is an environmental media platform that discusses the intersections around climate, LGBTQ issues, and food.

He seeks to advance the discourse around climate literacy through an intersectional media lens.

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My Michigan neighbors shutter “pornographic” public library

Their definition is peculiar: LGBTQ = Porno. You know book banning is out of control when people fight to close public libraries

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Burning book photo licensed from Adobe Stock.

By James Finn | DETROIT – Think that book banning doesn’t happen in the United States, that it’s only the stuff of dystopian fiction? Think again! Hear about that Iowa library that closed early this summer because three head librarians quit, one after the other? They and the rest of the staff got tired (and frightened) of being called groomers and pedophiles by loud homophobes and racists who don’t want ANYBODY in their community reading books about LGBTQ people or about the U.S. history of slavery and segregation.

You know book banning is out of control when people fight to close public libraries

Some community members celebrated when the library shut its doors. Mission accomplished!

They were not fighting for space to express their own opinions. They were demanding their neighbors be barred from reading differing opinions. They were willing to make the lives of professional librarians hell — including a gay librarian who became a target of particular harassment, from the way he dressed to the way he spoke.

This NBC Newlong read is instructive and frightening: (LINK)

Last week, the story came home to me in Michigan

For a little background first, PEN America says U.S. public-library book banning has reached heights they’ve never seen before:

Today, books in the US are under profound attack. They are disappearing from library shelves, being challenged in droves, being decreed off limits by school boards, legislators, and prison authorities. And everywhere, it is the books that have long fought for a place on the shelf that are being targeted. Books by authors of color, by LGBTQ+ authors, by women. Books about racism, sexuality, gender, history.

In 1922, literary luminaries like Willa Cather, Eugene O’Neill, Robert Frost, Ellen Glasgow, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Benchley, and Booth Tarkington founded PEN America to foster connections around the world and fight book banning. I wonder if they imagined that a century later the problem would be worse than ever?

They are trying to groom our children to believe that it’s OK to have these sinful desires. [Shutting the library down] is not a political issue, it’s a Biblical issue.

While Pen fights community efforts to remove books from libraries, a Michigan town near me responded by going after the library itself.

Jamestown, Michigan voters opted last Tuesday to defund their library rather than tolerate books by or about LGBTQ people — not even if the books are in the adult section of the library with a jacket cover “warning,” not even if the books are behind the counter and have to be requested from a librarian.

“Gender Queer” cover art from Goodreads

It all started early this year when groups of up to 50 people began attending meetings of the elected library board, first demanding that the memoir-comic Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe be removed from the library’s collection, then moving on to a list of about 90 other books, almost the library’s entire collection of books about same-sex relationships and transgender people.

Then, just like in Iowa, two staff members quit their jobs. Former library director Amber McLain told Bridge Michigan she resigned after being accused of being a pedophile and becoming the target of daily online harassment.

She says the the details are ugly:

I had to change my name on Facebook for a time to prevent messages that were starting to come in. I never read any of them fully, but it was the typical fare — that I’m evil, that I’m indoctrinating kids. In March, a woman came into the library filming on her cell phone. She said she was looking for ‘that pedophile librarian’ and ‘the freak with the pink hair.’

Residents cite religious beliefs for voting to shut down library

A coalition of conservative Jamestown residents began campaigning against funding for the library in May while protesting a Pride Month book display. When the couldn’t convince the library board to remove LGBTQ-themed books from the shelves, not satisfied with compromises to restrict access to the books, they took to the streets to convince their neighbors the town would be better off without a public library at all.

Yard signs urging residents to vote no on funding the library popped up all over town, one sign across the street from the library, another in the lawn of a library board member who did not respond to Bridge Michigan’s request for comment.

One homemade sign said, “50 percent increase to GROOM our kids? Vote NO on Library!”

Amanda Ensing, one of the organizers of the drive to defund down the library, emerged from the library last Tuesday after, in a twist of irony, casting her ballot there. She told a reporter, “They are trying to groom our children to believe that it’s OK to have these sinful desires. [Shutting the library down] is not a political issue, it’s a Biblical issue.”

She did not explain why her private religious beliefs should restrict access to books for people whose religious ideas differ from hers.

She won, though.

Voters said no to the funding, gutting the library’s 2023–24 $245,000 budget. After this year, the lights are likely to go off and the doors to close, permanently, according to Larry Walton, library board president.

“I wasn’t expecting anything like this,” he told reporters. “The library is the center of the community. For individuals to be short sighted to close that down over opposing LGBTQ is very disappointing.”

Many Michigan public libraries and school libraries have found themselves under community fire over books with LGBTQ themes, but last Tuesday is the first time a Michigan community voted to close a library because a library board refused to ban books.

Let’s talk about pornography, what it is and what it isn’t

A common theme in library censorship debates this year is pornography. The people in Iowa and Michigan who tried to force library boards to ban LGBTQ-themed books did so on the grounds that the books are “pornographic,” citing descriptions of sexual acts or sexualized images. One of the drawings in Gender Queer, for example, features frontal nudity, though calling that clinical drawing porn is beyond silly.

It’s true that some of the books they object to, like Jonathan Evison’s Lawn Boy, at the top of censorship lists this year, include passages about sex and sexuality, but to characterize them as pornographic is also beyond silly.

And it’s blatant hypocrisy.

I keep scanning banned book lists for mentions of beloved YA classics like John Green’s The Fault in Our StarsThat novel, and many like it, treat teenage (straight) sexuality with respect and sensitivity but don’t shy away from depicting it.

I hesitate to write this, because I don’t want to give book-banning activists any ideas, but Green’s novel and many like it contain much more frank discussion of sexuality than Lawn Boy or other books activists target over LGBTQ material.

Curiously, one California middle school briefly pulled The Fault in Our Stars from library shelves in 2014 due to parental concern, mostly arguing that 11–13 year olds are too young to read about teenage cancer and death. The school board voted to restore the book about two months later.

Green’s response to the censorship was sardonic and on point:

I guess I am both happy and sad.

I am happy because apparently young people in Riverside, California will never witness or experience mortality since they won’t be reading my book, which is great for them.

But I am also sad because I was really hoping I would be able to introduce the idea that human beings die to the children of Riverside, California and thereby crush their dreams of immortality.

I remember reading The Fault in Our Stars shortly after it came out and feeling a great deal of awe for Green — about how he mined beauty and insight from a story about a terminally ill girl. As far as I know, few people ever claimed that her loving (eventually sexual) relationship with a boy qualifies the novel as pornography.

Porn? What a silly idea!

The novel is art, though it contains sexual passages. It’s not porn because it contains important literary value, namely an exploration of mortality, grief, and joy — where you’d least expect to find joy.

Well, I’m here to tell you that Lawn Boy and most of the other LGBTQ-themed books topping this year’s ban lists contain far less sex than A Fault in Our Stars and other popular, non-controversial books for teens.

Lawn Boy is not porn. It’s a novel that features three or four non-graphic sexual paragraphs out of 320 pages that don’t talk about sex. Critics and readers love the book, which is also joyful in unexpected ways, written by a literary phenom with important insight into the human condition and certain contradictions of American culture.

That one of the main characters turns out to be gay at the end of the book is almost incidental.

Porn? What a silly idea!

But according to my neighbors in Jamestown, queer sexuality is porn by default. Is dystopia coming true?

My neighbors hate Lawn Boy so much they’ll close their library rather than leave open any possibility that somebody might read it. Making their own choices isn’t enough. They insist they must control what other people read and what other people’s children read.

Trans characters and lesbian/gay characters having sex or talking about having sex is, to them, pornography by definition. Cis/straight people having sex or talking about having sex is not. Maybe they don’t like that either, but they didn’t campaign to close the library over The Fault in Our Stars.

Remember Jack Petocz, one of the Florida high school students who rallied teenagers to protest against Governor DeSantis’s Don’t Say Gay law? PEN America honored him this year with their Freedom of Expression Courage Award after he campaigned to get books about LGBTQ people and Black people into students’ hands.

Jack says kids deserve to read about themselves and about people different from them. He says banning books is un-American. He says representation matters.

I agree with Jack and PEN.

Most people do. Banning books is antithetical to American values, contrary to our traditions of freedom, curiosity, and education. Most of us WANT to understand people who are different from us, not put our hands over our eyes and pretend those people don’t exist.

It’s come to this: Christian conservatives in a town near me just voted to shutter their library rather than tolerate books about people different from them.

Will you raise your voices with me in defense of books and libraries?

I can’t believe I need to ask, but according to PEN, the need is greater today than at any time in American history.

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James Finn is a columnist for the LA Blade, a former Air Force intelligence analyst, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, and an “agented” but unpublished novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to [email protected]

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The preceding article was previously published by Prism & Pen– Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling and is republished by permission.

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